The usual place was our favourite Indian buffet off of Parker. It was the kind of Indian food meant for white folk like my sister and I; pretty generic, just enough spice to make you feel like you’re being outrageous, and yet the people who came in with the lovely accents acted like it was comfort food.  I’d been to a few others – one gave me food poisoning (I still don’t trust a watery vindaloo) and the other had too many bell peppers. I mean, seriously, there might even have been green peppers in their cream of wheat-alike.  For the price, the Star was pretty awesome for us food-naive.

She and Roberto were busy eating all of the naan while I came in.  I saw that she had already ordered us all chai, and gotten me a bowl of the rice pudding with a spoonful of mango custard on top.  I gestured to the buffet bar, and she scooted Roberto out so we could all meet up in line.

Nen and Rayya had flipped for the responsibility, using my nickel. A literal nickel, that is. It’s what I had in my change cup. Rayya won, which meant she was going to stay “around,” a semi-invisibility glamour. Unlike Nen, she didn’t like to be part of the conversation on my outings.

I caught her reflection in the sneeze guard, but then lost her.  I turned, almost running into Eve, who was busy filling up her plate with hefty spoonfuls. “Meatballs…” she said, with the kind of slow regard that insinuated simulated lust. I raised an eyebrow, and she cut me off. “Don’t say it, E. I’ll win and make you blush.”

I just rolled my eyes. My sister went after me, explaining to Roberto all the things he would like and the things he should try anyway.  I grabbed an extra spoon for the pudding and sat down, picking up my chai to warm up my hands.

A few minutes later, given more naan and a glass of water, the silence was broken only by the other people in the restaurant and the sounds of our forks hitting the plates, plus the assorted smacking and such that drives misophoniacs bugnuts. I used my napkin and sighed, leaning against the back of the booth with the satisfaction of the first plate.

Roberto matched me, and dropped his napkin on his plate. “Your sister, she says you need my expertise?”

“Reluctantly,” I said with a wry smile.

“It is hard to be nice to you,” he said.

“You know, I’ve always suspected that, but no one has ever actually said that to my face, I think,” I realized aloud. I twirled a spoon around, absently.  “It’s probably true,” I decided.

“Definitely,” my sister muttered.  She was still working on some of the spicy chicken. Tandoori, I thought I remembered. Drumstick, kind of red outer coating. I resolved to maybe actually look at the labels on the buffet next time I went up so that I wasn’t remaining ignorant of what I was eating outside of, “The green stuff with the cheese I think? Oh, and I really like the meatballs.”

I sighed, putting the spoon down.  “I just don’t believe in demons.”

Roberto chuckled. “You ran into one?” he guessed.

“I don’t know,” I admitted. “It’s probably a parasite. You know, like vampires. Lost in this world, inhabiting someone else’s body, doing what it thinks is natural.” I was starting to pick up the spoon again when Roberto put his hand on mine.

It was uncomfortable, a violation of my personal space, but while I know I tensed up, I tried not to pull my hand back immediately.

“Stop,” he said. “I believe you are a good man, E.  You know there is evil in this world.”

I know I frowned. He let my hand go.

“You can try to rationalize it, but you know it to be true. There are things that are unnatural, things that do not belong because they are against all that is good and true.”

I kept frowning, but while I touched my spoon I didn’t pick it up. “I think there’s a lot of leeway in those terms. Relatively speaking, I don’t know that deciding what’s good or bad is really something at my pay grade.”

“Nonsense,” Roberto said. “It is everyone’s responsibility. It is not to say…” he looked for the words, “It is not to say that you cannot be incorrect. But you must make that decision. You must hold that line. You,” he glanced at Eve.

“It’s okay,” she said. “He’s woke.”

Not the terminology I would have used, but I tried to appreciate it with a forced grin.

He turned his attention back to me. “Your talent especially.  If you do not know what is good, and what is evil, how can you keep the door shut against that which wants in?”

I caught myself turning the spoon around again before I answered. “Generally I figure nothing gets in, and nothing stays unless it belongs here.”

He did a kind of one-armed shrug. “So you have made your decision. You found a path that works for you, but then,” he half-smiled, “so did Darth Vader.”

I took a moment to contemplate the role of Jedi in a universe of gateways to other places, but then realized it was a rabbit hole I’d have to explore later.  “Hey, Vader had the coolest theme song,” I tried, but I knew it was weak.

He shook his head. “Clarity. Focus. You have to have these things in order to hunt demons. They prey on insecurities, turn your head with temptation, and take every advantage you offer, deliberate or not.” He took a deep breath. “If you have truly met one, you would know. It would be a stain on your very soul, a palpable sense of evil.”

“Very theatrical,” I said.

Eve rolled her eyes. “You wanted an expert.”

“Oh, no, I mean, it’s great, it’s just that I don’t think I’ve ever heard the word palpable spoken aloud,” I clarified. “Are you of the opinion then that the greatest evil ever perpetrated was to make the Devil a myth?”

“There is truth in it,” he gave another of those half-shrugs. “That there are few demons required centuries of hard labor to make it happen, tempered in that few open the way anymore.  They don’t like the light.”

“Physical and metaphysical, I suppose?” I asked.

“Indeed,” he nodded.  “And the old texts are just that – old, and worn. They are pathways that are well travelled and well patrolled.  You can call, but the numbers… they are disconnected.” He seemed proud of the metaphor.

I humoured him with a nod. “Is there some way you can see this stain?”

Eve stopped him from responding. “More mango custard. Now.”

He smiled a little smile at her and left the table. She cleared her throat and looked at me.